What are North Korea’s most treasured ideological values? How does the country manage to preserve them while simultaneously maintaining the idea of being the ‘better Korea’ among Korean communities in neighboring countries? And how does the North compare with the South in terms of its government produced online content? With Juche 2.0, NK NEWS starts a journey into the world of North Korean websites.
Today’s topic: Unification (통일, Tong Il).
As North Korea continues to consolidate its online presence, we are increasingly able to see exactly how the DPRK seeks to promote its culture and ideology online. In this way we can see just how important the ideal of unification has become for North Korea, on the surface something that appears to be quintessential. Simply put, if we are to believe Pyongyang’s official statements, unification is the value when it comes to North Korean projections of ideology and national culture.
This year in July, the DPRK will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its ‘victory over the yankees in the Fatherland’s liberation war’ (the signing of the Korean War armistice, for the rest of the world). North Korea has recently declared this armistice void, and is currently in a ‘state of war’, according to its national media. Of course this should come as no surprise, because the armistice was always intended to be temporary, with the real, non-negotiable goal (which still remains) being reunification of the entire peninsula.
Anyone still wondering why North Korea behaves so aggressively with the U.S. and South Korea should be reminded that while the DPRK managed to sell the armistice as a victory to its own people, its leaders knew very well that the war, launched to reunify the peninsula, failed to achieve its goal. This is why North Korea places so much importance on its own version of the story, presenting the Korean war as a victory against external aggression. Ever since, the official line is that the country has been working carefully in the background towards its overreaching goal of reunification. So six decades after the war, the main reason d’etre of the North Korean state remains to ‘reunite the separated families of Korea’ happily ever after under its unique form of socialism.
In short, North Korea has never ceased to seek reunification, through both actions (Kim Il Sung was ready to give war a second and third chance, in the mid 1960s and 1970s) and through the words of its national propaganda. But before North Korea made its online debut a bit more than a decade ago, most of this propaganda material could only be seen or purchased in Pyongyang. And before Pyongyang started investing in an online presence, the regime had a somewhat limited range of expression: posters, books, and monuments.
Super Hang-On: Ideology Goes 1980s Sega Style
The advent of digital media has arguably enriched the ways in which North Korea can spread its message, especially towards younger generations. But when it comes to educating the youth of the world about divided Korea, then what better way than through a videogame? With graphics from the late 1980s and the patriotic name of Paektu-eso Han-na (백두산에서 한나) , this North Korean game does wonders in summing up the ideal of a unified Korea.
While the game has been out there for years now, its name echoes a traditional pro-unification slogan designed to appeal to both Koreans north and south of the DMZ: ‘One country from Mount Paektu (the sacred mountain of Korean mythology, on the slopes of which Kim Jong Il is said to have been born) to Halla Mountain’(the highest peak on Jeju island, in South Korea).
The game (a motorbike racer eerily similar to that of Sega of Japan’s 1987 hit, Super Hang-On) features a simple menu of ‘Start’ (게임시작), ‘How to play’ (게임방법), ‘Score record’ (게임리력) and ‘Info’ (게임정보). But beyond an otherwise simple motorbike race, there’s much more than meets the eye. Here, the name of the game is unmistakably 조국통일 (Cho-guk Tong-il: Reunification of the Fatherland). The slogan is printed on each rider’s jacket, on the motorbikes themselves, nearly everywhere else. The best players win their races by arriving by arriving first at the reunification arch – one of the top propaganda monuments in the DPRK. The same slogan is also printed on various boards by the roadside so that the message gets repeated every lap.
Racers also pass by several images promoting unification: flags of a unified Korea (the usual emblem of the Korean peninsula, in light blue on a white background), pictures celebrating the June 15th (2000) North-South Declaration (북남공동선언 in North Korea; the name is reversed in the South, which calls it 남북공동선언; or South-North Joint Declaration), and the number on their jackets, which is always 615, to signify the date the declaration was made, June 15 2000.
It’s easy to see how North Korea gets the message across. Whilst in other instances their declarations about reunification can be quite bellicose, here the propaganda takes a more subtle approach, almost institutional, one could say, considering how the emphasis is placed on the June 15 (2000) Joint Declaration over perhaps more traditional military campaigns. It’s a reminder, to those who wait, that the unification agreement was not just a mere formality for the DPRK. In this context it is interesting to re-read North Korean accounts of the famous Pyongyang summit in which the document was signed, where former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung was presented by the North Koreans as coming to Pyongyang to ‘surrender’ and accept reunification under DPRK terms.
The game is part of the limited yet amusing entertainment section on the Ryomyong website, a Northern version of popular South Korean sites such as Naver and Daum, if you will. Ryomyong is, nominally, the website of the National Reconciliation Council (민족화해협의회) and offers more than just games: on this site are numerous sections, dedicated to shopping, culture, music, history and pretty much everything else one could find on any South Korean portal, though in this case with ubiquitous references to Juche ideology and the reunification of the fatherland.
So important is the concept of putting an end to the division of Korea that the DPRK also endorses a site called ‘Paektu Hanna‘ (백두산에서 한나, just like the racing game), registered as the official portal for the ethnic Korean community in China. And if that wasn’t enough, Pyongyang has recently launched a third website dedicated to ideal of ‘one country, one people’, named unmistakably as ‘Great National Unity’ (민족대단결 - gnu.rep.kp).
Just like Ryomyong, Paektu-Hanna functions more or less as a general portal, having a fair amount of political content mixed with other, less tedious sections. Great National Unity on the other hand is definitely geared towards more cultural and social content. Being the newest site it appears to have been designed broadly for all Korean communities abroad, although it is blocked in South Korea – just like nearly all of the other DPRK based or related sites.
All of these sites present the same iconography throughout: numerous images of the reunification arch, scenic spots revered by Koreans on both sides as symbol of Korea (like Mount Paektu or Mount Halla), and other monuments or images alluding to a happier future for reunited Koreans.
Unification Makes Good Business
The prospect of unification has also been used online to promote business, perhaps most notably in the case of North Korea’s automobile makers. Similar to what has been done with the Kaesong Industrial Complex (which is seen both as a symbol of future cooperation and as a present indicator of the real status of inter-Korean relations), the Pyeonghwa Automobile Factory was launched and operated with a clear message: that a united Korea works better than its two split halves.
Pyeonghwa motors presents its Hwipharam cars to the world on a much sleeker website than the DPRK-made ones, but the message is exactly the same: “One country, from Paektu to Halla”. The same happens for the other North Korean car manufacturer, Sungri, which produces models such as the Jaju car (자주 – ‘Independence’), a clone of Volkswagen Passat, and of course thePaektusan car (백두산 – ‘Mount Paektu’), a clone of a 1987 Mercedes-Benz. While all this may just be seen as a meaningless repetition of slogans for some outsiders, it definitely helps the DPRK claim at least some legitimacy among Korean communities abroad.
Online Rhetoric or Defining Goal?
Despite all of the online rhetoric towards unification, it remains to be seen whether North Korea can effectively translate the ideological effort into practice. Perhaps more likely is that North Korea will continue wanting to postpone the unification issue indefinitely, so that it can use it as a card of emotional and moral advantage, both domestically and with Koreans abroad.
In reality, Pyongyang can hardly afford to make tangible steps towards reunification, for they would imply not only the admission that the ‘Partisan Sate’ has no more reason to exist, but more importantly that it would bring about full disclosure of historical events to North Koreans, and citizen exposure to the outside world that could be fatal to the regime. This is why, for some time to come, we will continue to see ever-more online material dedicated to unification, combined with louder statements in daily propaganda.
As long as Pyongyang can keep the ideal of reunification alive (by carefully avoiding telling its domestic audience that few Koreans south of the DMZ actually believe or are interested in the prospect of reunification), it can continue to claim domestic legitimacy and demand total mobilization, whenever needed.